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  • Tess Linkins

In a time where everyone has an opinion and stance, how do brands avoid ‘woke-washing’?

Updated: Jul 4, 2022

It is not news to anyone that recent times have seen rapid and drastic change to the global cultural landscape. Here, I want to stem off the obvious topic of COVID pandemic, and change the lens to focus on how we are experiencing a surge of brands making big moves to express their social standing on public and political issues during these turbulent times. Is it too risky? Are they jeopardising credibility with consumers? Will it really be worth it?

In the last few months, even years, we have seen brands take a huge jump to be confidently transparent in what they stand for across dominating societal and political issues, whether it's gender equality, environmental health, the Black Lives Matter movement, varying social and political matters... and, even more recently, the stand ‘for’ or ‘against’ the COVID19 vaccination.

Observing these brand movements really got me thinking: what motivates the brand to make the stance? Is it because they are passionate about it? Or just because everyone else is doing it? And how are they really committing to the cause?

In previous eras, brands would avoid engaging in social and political discussions for apprehension of potentially distancing consumers, but research is showing that savvy brands who align with activism by their message approach, purpose, and values with prosocial corporate practice, are deemed more authentic and therefore create the greatest potential gains in brand equity [1].

Over time, Edelman has found that younger consumers are becoming increasingly aware of brands who are actively stepping up to have these conversations and prove their worth to the consumer. In a study by Edelman in 2018, it was discovered that 64% of consumers now purchase products based on brand trust. Ultimately, those brands driving action now, rather than making commitments for future action, are seeing large rises in product sales and, more significantly, consumer trust. This was up a staggering 51% from the previous year, clearly showing a directional change in purchase intentions, and the rise of brand purpose, as key consideration drivers for Australian consumers.

In contrast to this – and after quite some research - I also started to recognise a regularly repeated term “woke-washing" being used to describe brands who are ‘doing it wrong’. Woke-washing is defined as practices in business that provide the appearance of social consciousness without any of the substance [2].

Following this, and looking at the importance of brands creating credibility with consumers, if brand purpose is executed poorly it can be seen as “just another brand jumping on the bandwagon", an unauthentic and superficial attempt at brand activism. Consumers are often quick to identify this, and it can ultimately lead to them boycotting the brand.

Pepsi’s 2017 commercial with Kendall Jenner is a key example of this.

The advertisement was pulled from all platforms following immediate global scrutiny and accusation that the company was trivialising widespread protesting and the Black Lives Matter movement. Pepsi addressed the backlash indicating that the intended purpose was to “project a global message of unity, peace and understanding”, but agreed that they missed the mark.

The commercial resulted in nine months of the lowest perception levels Pepsi had seen in over 8 years, and the consumer purchasing consideration was the lowest they had experienced in 3 years.

So, how do brands overcome this risk of woke-washing to effectively create credibility and emotive connections with the consumer? For most brands, this isn’t an easy step to take without a carefully structured and precise execution. When it is executed wrong, it has the potential to damage consumer trust and stain the brand’s reputation but, without it, they might lose the opportunity to reach consumers in meaningful ways and create connections of mutual loyalty.

At its core, the most important element for brands to remember is that they need to back their messaging with clear actions – in other words, putting money where their mouth is.

In comparison to the Pepsi blunder, a brand that has done this well is Coca-Cola. Since 2007, Coca-Cola have committed to sustainability and have powered forward in their movement to actively invest in a multitude of sustainability efforts. The company’s vision is “World Without Waste” and in 2016 they announced that they would give back to nature and communities 115% of the water used in making their drinks.

Coca-Cola achieved this goal ahead of schedule and are now working towards developing 100% recyclable packaging, as well as reducing the number of plastic bottles developed. The company has addressed that they are applying a global marketing strategy to help educate the public on what, where and how to recycle correctly. They are committed, and they are taking action.

Society is becoming increasingly vocal about their expectation of brands to express their support and be transparent in their cause led activity. This in turn has led to brands being exposed to potential scrutiny, but it is much harder for a brand not to say anything at all.

In this time where people have strong opinions, and the platforms to be able to express themselves, it is fundamental that brands recognise causes that directly align with their values, causes that fit their consumers' values, and causes that the brand can make a firm and confident commitment to make a stand and act upon, not just today, but every day.

[1] Brands Taking a Stand: Authentic Brand Activism or Woke Washing?

[2] Woke-Washing, The Glass Cliff And The Need For A Better Answer In Diversity Leadership


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